Why the hot black bodies on ‘Insecure’ are more revolutionary than you think
The sex looks like what humans actually do
We have to talk about the sex on Insecure.
The hit HBO comedy from creator and star Issa Rae has a lot to say about it — specifically, the sex between black people.
The bug-eyed reaction to Lawrence’s (Jay Ellis) sex scene at the end of season one wasn’t just because viewers identified with Lawrence’s emotional pain after Issa admitted to cheating on him. It’s because it looked familiar in a way that black sex on TV or in film rarely does. Lawrence’s revenge sex closely resembled the way people actually have sex.
For one, Lawrence is completely nude, and so is Tasha (Dominique Perry), the woman whose back he’s blowing out. Tasha’s the flirty teller from Lawrence’s credit union who’s had her eye on him since before he was single. They’re in an apartment that’s appropriate for her salary. It’s outfitted with dingy mini blinds and a metal bed frame that could easily be a thrift store find or a hand-me-down. Tasha’s at the edge of the bed, bent over, and Lawrence is pulling her hair. The sex is … vigorous.
“Watching those sex scenes makes me feel aroused and uncomfortable at the same time,” said Numa Perrier, who, as co-founder of the subscription-based network Black and Sexy TV, collaborated with Rae on some early web-based content ventures. Perrier is also the writer-director of Jezebel, a film based on her experiences experimenting with internet porn. She expects it to hit the 2018 festival circuit. “It’s uncomfortable because I feel like I’m peeking into a very private moment that I shouldn’t be watching, and I think that is what great art does.”
After seeing Chi-raq two years ago, I had a giggle-filled conversation about how the early sex scenes in the film felt real in a way they rarely do on screen. Chi-raq was devoid of actors covered in sheet forts, dragging their top sheets with them to the bathroom, or women sleeping in their bras and full makeup.
There’s not a lot of art that reflects how people actually have sex, period, and that’s even less true for black people. So Insecure joins a short list that’s otherwise occupied by film: Baby Boy, Chi-raq, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, A Good Day to be Black and Sexy, How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, Love and Basketball, Jason’s Lyric, Set It Off and Belly. (This is by no means a comprehensive list, so feel free to email me with others.)
“We’re telling the story of these women’s real lives and sex is a real aspect of being a 30-something-year-old woman … Instead of leaving that part out, we’d like to explore it and capture it in a unique way,” said Melina Matsoukas, an executive producer who frequently directs on the show. “What you find so unique about it is that it feels real.”
In Hollywood, who gets naked on screen often indicates something about the power dynamics of gender. So does who we see having sex, and the type of sex they’re having. It also says something about the power dynamics of race. And in Insecure, we get implicit commentary on all of it.
For starters, we see a lot of Ellis and that’s not by accident.
His, er, visual presence reminded me of an interview actor Tony Goldwyn, who plays President Fitzgerald Grant in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, did with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show.
“The rule, exactly as quoted to me, is, in Shondaland, the women can do whatever they want and the boys have to take off their clothes when Shonda [Rhimes] tells them to,” Goldwyn explained after Colbert held a still of a shirtless Goldwyn embracing a fully clothed Kerry Washington. It was noteworthy precisely because Rhimes’ rule is such an anomaly.
So it’s significant that the first bare butt to appear on Insecure was Ellis’. In 2012, Rae was tapped to develop a show for ABC with Rhimes called I Hate L.A. Dudes. The network ultimately passed on the show, but Rae’s time in the Shondaland incubator clearly had some influence on her. So did her tenure as an actor, collaborator and fan of Black & Sexy TV. Mix all that with the aesthetic of Matsoukas, and the show’s approach to sex starts to make sense.
“We just wanted to flip the script a little bit and there’s always an expectation that we just have to be like, t—–s and a– out,” Rae said at a Television Critics Association panel discussion about season one. “I think with this we had an opportunity with two female leads to be like, ‘There’s going to be a lot of sex in this show. Our guys are game, so let’s just have them bare all.’ And they did. They were great about it.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong or shameful about nudity. The actors and actresses who make the decision to disrobe are doing what their stories and characters require of them, and that’s also true on Insecure, where the women show just as much skin as the men do. But in television and film, the expectation to disrobe falls disproportionately to women.
Premium cable is notorious for encouraging nudity. That’s part of what you’re paying for: freedom from Federal Communications Commission censure to deploy F-bombs, bare chests and lots of sex. There’s an unspoken ethos of “If we can do it, then we should.” But there’s a difference in the way nudity is used for male and female actors. Seth MacFarlane’s number at the 2013 Oscars titled “We Saw Your Boobs” provoked intense reaction, but it was basically a song and dance celebrating how little power women have in Hollywood. Everyone loves to talk about Game of Thrones, but think about The Sopranos and its use of the barely clad women of the Bada Bing as wallpaper for whatever happened to be taking place in Tony’s life. Ballers uses women’s bodies in a similarly dismissive way, and New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum tore HBO a new one for perpetuating this practice in the first season of True Detective. In season three of the Starz comedy Survivor’s Remorse, a trip to a strip club featuring older women is played for laughs and disgust: How dare these women show us bodies that aren’t taut, hairless and wrinkle-free? For men, full frontal is generally reserved for comedy, and that’s true across television and film, from Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall to the hobo who exposes his junk in Girls Trip.
“The way we usually capture sexual experiences on our show — we depend more on the male figure for nudity,” Matsoukas said. “It’s not something you normally see. It’s usually about the female body and capturing the male gaze, and we somewhat reverse that, I think, and like to focus on our very handsome male leads. We show the stuff that we find sexy, which is Jay’s [Ellis] butt half the time.”
Having female directors, Matsoukas said, engenders a special level of trust on the set when sex scenes are shot. Rae told her she feels “protected,” in part because the women on set are working to make sure Rae, or Perry, or Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly, feel comfortable. That’s also contributed to another anomaly in television: “We have a very diverse crew,” Matsoukas said. “We have a primarily female camera crew this season … I’ve literally never seen it.”
Layer on top of that the history of how black nudity, black sex and black romance have been depicted on screen. Images of black intimacy and sexuality faced censorship from the early days of the film industry, while films starring white actors were heavily marketed using romance.
The prevailing attitude in Hollywood was that black romance would be disgusting to white audiences, UCLA professor Ellen C. Scott told me. Scott, who specializes in media history, African-American cultural history, and the history of censorship and cultural studies, is the author of Cinema Civil Rights, which examines Hollywood’s foot-dragging on civil rights issues and the way it was manifest both within the industry and in the films it produced.
Scott said white Southerners worked with Hollywood self-regulation offices to ensure such images didn’t appear.
“Censorship of Black romance onscreen begins most clearly [in 1929] with Hallelujah — King Vidor’s film — where the Hollywood self-regulator Jason Joy feared that white audiences would be disgusted by two Black characters kissing,” Scott said in an email. “In early cinema — Black romance is treated as the subject of humor and stereotype rather than as a center.”
But this censorship wasn’t just about the absence of black intimacy on screen. It was also about the narratives that sprung up to fill those gaps.
“Often Black romantic relationships onscreen existed primarily by implication rather than any case in point — and were not, unlike white romances, tied to a marriage trajectory,” Scott said. “Often this marriage trajectory was abandoned or impossible because of the stereotypical assumption that Black men were always ‘good-for-nothings’ when it came to many things — hard work, keeping a job, and staying with a woman.”
While representation of black intimacy is arguably better now than it’s ever been, that’s not necessarily saying much.
“It looks better but not good enough,” Scott wrote. “In my opinion many of the so-called ‘black films’ that treat Black romance are still mired in the world of defined by Blaxploitation style sexuality.”
Recognizing that the physiques of its male stars are part of Insecure’s appeal, the show’s second season features liberal doses of Ellis’ toned back, shoulders, pectorals, triceps, biceps … I’m losing focus here.
On some level, that’s to be expected. Insecure is a show about sex and relationships, chiefly filmed by Matsoukas, who made her name directing music videos for Rihanna (“We Found Love,” “You Da One,” “Hard,” “S&M”), Lady Gaga (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Just Dance”) and Beyoncé (“Diva,” “Formation,” “Pretty Hurts”).
Matsoukas is a pro at helping women sharpen and articulate their attitudes about on-screen sex. “Melina, as a director, comes from a very sensual place,” Perrier said. “With all of the work that she’s done in the music videos landscape, she was always kind of etching out what intimacy and sexiness looked like for black women.”
Her penchant for the sensual is especially evident in her work with Beyoncé. She’s the director behind “Suga Mama,” “Kitty Kat” and “Green Light,” all songs from B’Day. In the album, released in 2006 just before Beyoncé’s 25th birthday, the singer writhed in fetish heels and latex minidresses in “Green Light,” offered herself up as a gender-flipped benefactress in “Suga Mama” and spurned the attentions of a sometimey lover in the not-so-obliquely-named “Kitty Kat.” Similarly, Matsoukas helped Rihanna develop an answer to the media coverage of her assault at the hands of her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown in the 2010 video for “S&M.” The video depicted members of the press as identically dressed, ball-gagged automatons.
“I enjoy capturing sexual freedom visually … without being limited by what society feels and what that should mean,” Matsoukas said. “I don’t think it’s a demeaning act. I think it’s a very loving act and it’s very freeing and having control of your sexuality is something that I think is important for me as an artist and as a woman.”
Insecure occupies the Sunday night time slot formerly held by Sex and the City, another show praised for its depictions of the many ways women discuss sex and have it. It’s one of the few to entertain the possibility of a M-M-F (male-male-female) three-way, when the word almost automatically implies F-F-M.
We’re experiencing something similarly revelatory with Insecure. It’s just that these women are black, and there’s nowhere else on television that shows their lives in this way. Girlfriends and Living Single might have come the closest, but they were both network comedies, with their bundle of standards-and-practices-imposed restrictions.
Furthermore, Rae is just the third black woman to create and star in her own television comedy, after Wanda Sykes (Wanda at Large) and Whoopi Goldberg (Whoopi). When it comes to exploring this ground through the eyes of women of color, television is still in its infancy.
As for the sex in Insecure? “Things are going to jiggle and things should jiggle,” Perrier said. “I think we’re at a point now where we want to see a real representation of everything across the board.
“When it gets hot, it’s like an electric jolt. And we need that.”